Best of 2021 - Francine

November 29, 2021

Best of 2021 - Francine

Phoebe Robinson was right on the money when she compared our collective status to Sexiest Man Alive Paul Rudd’s now infamous soundbite, “Hey, look at us. Who would’ve thought? Not me.” Sure it’s from an essay on 2020, but it’s a shockingly accurate caption for 2021, too. The number of times it’s made me sing the Benny Hill theme song out loud is worthy of its own seven-hour YouTube supercut--but I digress. The fact of the matter is, I started this year with the following principle: rather than stare down the barrel of disappointment on account of personal expectation, I would watch 2021 make the first move and then match its energy. So far, so good. I mean, it’s gotten me here, to another Best of the Year list.

Thumb 1633017449 images

Please Don't Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes

Phoebe Robinson

With sharp, timely insight, pitch-perfect pop culture references, and her always unforgettable voice, New York Times bestselling author, comedian, actress, and producer Phoebe Robinson...

More Info

Let’s start with Ms. Robinson herself. The woman responsible for ThirstyThursdays on Instagram looks out for the lonely people of the pandemic, and speaks to us on our own terms. Her latest essay collection, Please Don't Sit On My Bed In Your Outside Clothes is the dessert portion of this tenuously balanced literary meal. So naturally, we’re starting there. Robinson gleefully and glibly tackles what’s been on our minds for the last eighteen months, serving up a truthful snapshot of who and where we are now. It is perhaps all the more necessary when you consider how many people labour under the illusory assumption that it doesn’t matter, because ‘it’s all going to be over, very soon.’ Right.

Thumb 1621462985 images

Postcolonial Astrology

Alice Sparkly Kat

Tapping into the political power of magic and astrology for social, community, and personal transformation.In a cross-cultural approach to understanding astrology as a magical...

More Info

Next, we move on to a palette cleanser. Postcolonial Astrology is possibly the most interesting, widely-available book by an astrologer out there because it has very little to do with astrology. It instead addresses mythologies around the planets through the lens of philosophy and contemporary political theory. Author Alice Sparkly Kat quotes the likes of Naomi Klein, Byung-Chul Han, and Angela Davis, then draws parallels between theory and media practice. Sparkly Kat connects the dots between our collective perception of the present and the ways major corporations and oppressive institutions co-opt them for profit at the expense of queer and BIPOC agency. It further behooves me to mention that Postcolonial Astrology is possibly the only book that holds popular iterations of a traditionally occult practice accountable for its complicity with white supremacy. If that doesn’t clear your throat after downing Ms. Robinson’s sweets, I don’t know what will. 

Thumb 1638198087 images

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

Wole Soyinka

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR • The first Black winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature gives us a tour de...

More Info

In the event that it doesn’t, however, I’m happy to suggest you take a bite of Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. It’s a familiar story to those of us from devilishly warmer climes, where corruption is as shameless as it is rampant, the kind of urban legend people don’t have the guts to write off as complete fiction. Wole Soyinka’s tale of false prophets and stolen body parts for sale is written with the aplomb and irreverence of a screwball comedy, all the while regaling us with a sprawling account of the rot easily recognized as endemic to governments at the mercy of opportunists. 

Thumb 1638139798 fontaines lr 228x400


Haerdle, Stephanie

More Info

Parched? Not to worry. Unfortunately, this drink is only for people who can read in French. Unless of course, Sprechen Sie Deutsch, then by all means, go read it in the original. Stephanie Haerdle’s thorough examination of sexuality and anatomy, Fontaines, was released in March as though right on schedule for spring. Pun absolutely intended. If you haven’t already guessed from the title, it begins with a demystification of ejaculation as it’s been portrayed in literature around the world throughout history. It then goes on to track developments or lack thereof in medical and scientific research on the subject. Indeed, who could possibly ignore the most fascinating and entertaining sex education book that we were never allowed to consider reading in school? Overall, Fontaines is an inclusive and essential inquiry into a subject too often glamourized to the point of caricature.

On that note, let’s segue gracefully into the main event. I deliberately failed to mention that nearly half of the items on this umpteen-course set menu are comics. It’s easy to forget that the aroma of the following message lingers around the medium despite how long we’ve been talking about it as seriously as we have: “This is art. Not literature.” It’s a statement as irritatingly condescending as it is persistent. And sure, ‘best’ is subjective. Here are a few titles from cartoonists of every discernible generation the fit the bill anyway. Let’s go chronologically. 

Thumb 1637768161 images

Red Flowers

Yoshiharu Tsuge

The influential cartoonist hits his stride as he celebrates the charms and oddities of rural postwar cultureYoshiharu Tsuge leaves early genre trappings behind, taking...

More Info

I’m no secret Tsuge fan. In fact, everyone expected that this book would be on my list this year. Who am I to disappoint? Red Flowers marks the triumphant return of Shigeru Mizuki’s famed apprentice-slash-mentor. Full details on the unique dynamics of their working relationship are found in the back matter (at the front of the book), generously assembled by series editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa and translator Ryan Holmberg. In the second travelogue released by D+Q this year, Tsuge’s nameless protagonist backpacks across Japan in a seemingly interconnected series of shorts. He stops in at mom and pop hillside inns and crosses paths with all kinds of folks. There is a timeless, cinematic bend to Tsuge’s approach to photorealistic landscape only highlighted by this volume’s dedication to scale and depth in nothing but black ink on paper. Attention paid in production to atmospheric detail fleshes out vignettes with sparing dialogue, punctuated by appropriate doses of physical comedy. It’s hard not to contrast with Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari (Translated by Zack Davisson), which tackles a similar subject but focuses on long-forgotten folklore. Where Tono takes you for a joy ride, Flowers takes your hand on a leisurely stroll. A must-have for the self-described comics connoisseur. 

Thumb 1629388250 images

Queen of the Ring

Jaime Hernandez

For the past 40 years, acclaimed graphic novelist Jaime Hernandez has been creating a Love and Rockets-adjacent world ― set in the heyday of...

More Info

As part of the first generation of comics fans who went on to make them what they are today, it’s difficult to think of Jaime Hernandez as an old man. Elder statesman of indie is probably more becoming, a title he shares with brother Gilbert, and a handful of others still working today. Queen of the Ring is admittedly more of an art book than anything else, but is nonetheless a testament to Xaime’s prowess as a visual storyteller evidenced by endless variations on a single theme. This slim volume of previously unpublished art reads like the ultimate redux for wordless Love & Rockets luchadora action classic House of Raging Women (collected in L&R trade paperback The Girl from H.OP.P.E.R.S). It is a priceless look into the mind of a man who only really wants to be good at one thing: the thing he’s always known he’s good at. Such singular dedication to craft is a rare flavour to come across, and worth savouring from page to page.

Thumb 1637524853 couv 425919

La Bibliothèque


Les lecteurs les plus fidèles se souviennent de Chihoi, auteur hongkongais qu’Atrabile a eu le plaisir de publier il y a quelques années (A...

More Info

Another offering out of left field comes from one of my former homes. La Bibliothèque, Chihoi’s surreal vision of Hong Kong’s public libraries, makes its French language debut with help from Voitachewski in a gorgeous edition from Atrabile. Not to be confused with the English language volume of the same name released by Conundrum in 2013, this collects all of Chihoi’s loosely affiliated tales sketched out in his now-signature pencil smudge cartooning. While one or two stories stand alone, it is the field trip from hell told in several acts that makes the best impression. His characters grapple with grief, longing, and the unknown in this canny commentary on Taoist cosmology, all the while questioning the reverence with which we hold assorted illusions so dear.

Thumb 1624308899 images


Weng Pixin

A five-generation family history told through what is seen and heard, if not said Let?s Not Talk Anymore weaves together five generations of women...

More Info

While you let that sit on your tongue, consider another D+Q offering from early this year, Let’s Not Talk Anymore. Weng Pixin’s second book looks far into the past and peeks forward into the future in this intergenerational tale of mothers and daughters. Its key events happen off-page, engaging the reader by letting the mind wander. Weng successfully and elegantly discloses the bittersweetness of coming into one’s own, first in youth and later in parenthood. Exploring the hypothetical tomorrow of today’s young ‘uns is a rather bold choice as we adjust to increasing uncertainty. With regard to style, it is evidently not the sort of book I’m usually drawn to, but Weng’s use of colour so captures the eye and shepherds the reader through nearly 125 years of one family’s history with the utmost care. I should mention that there’s some level of gratuitous appreciation here on my part, since in most Chinese families, such histories are essentially forgotten by virtue of casual disregard, only heard of in passing and even then only in whispers. It’s easy to forget that they can often be heard just as clearly if you're listening closely enough. 

Thumb 1619708853 image

Stone Fruit

Lee Lai

Bron and Ray are a queer couple who enjoy their role as the fun weirdo aunties to Ray’s niece, six-year-old Nessie. Their playdates are...

More Info

The subject of families is apt to come up over the course of any meal, and so we come to easily the most anticipated graphic novel of the year: Lee Lai’s Stone Fruit. While the story opens on a young couple falling out, what follows is a nuanced account of siblings genuinely becoming kin. Much like Weng, Lai is equally undaunted by the business of children and how they are best treated, namely, better than you were at that age. Lai’s style has been described elsewhere as a ‘liberated Charles Burns drawing,’ but through these eyes, they’re contemporary renderings reminiscent of East Asian Buddhist imagery that cleave more to the suggestion of form than form itself. There are frenzied transitions from fantastical segments of play that give way to a sobering, blue ink wash reality that mirror the emotional intensity and startling, almost off putting openness with which Stone Fruit’s protagonists conduct themselves. 

Thumb 1622579474 images

City of Belgium

Brecht Evens

AN EXQUISITELY DRAWN EXPLORATION OF THREE LOST SOULS' EMOTIONAL TERRAIN As night falls in the City of Belgium, three strangers in their late twenties - a...

More Info

Not to say that a little flashy oversharing ever hurt anybody. It has its time, and boy does it have its place. The City of Belgium, Brecht Evens’ latest opus, is a whirling dervish of a love letter to madcap nights out. Evens has nothing if not a virtuosic hold on his craft: a distinct eye and an even more discerning pen despite the density of his composition. The book is all the more remarkable when you consider that it’s a self-translation. It was first published in France as Les Rigoles, an indubitable feast for the eyes in stunning technicolour to remind us of a life that now seems much more like ‘before’ than anything we could possibly dream up ‘now.’

Thumb 1630427344 images

Three Rooms

Jo Hamya

A piercing howl of a novel and "a tart pleasure...with echoes of Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney," about one young woman’s endless quest for an...

More Info

There are, on the other hand, some stories too weird not to be true. Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms is one such retelling centred on post-Brexit millennial living. The novel may arguably hit too close to home for a good few too many to really be funny, but who can resist a plot structured around the quest for affordable housing and all its accompanying bells and whistles? It’s a shame that Hamya’s sense of humour is striking in its peerlessness. Dry, observational comedy on such a sensitive topic is, after all, an acquired taste. You can’t help rooting for her protagonist, who addresses questions of privilege as a woman of colour while hopelessly grappling with increasingly unforgiving circumstance. There ought to be more room in fiction for imperfect but still likeable main characters whose trials are affecting in only the most human of ways.

With that we’ve reached the end of the meal, I certainly can’t let you leave without any snacks. Behold, a fine assortment of amuses-bouches for everybody to enjoy in a perfectly bilingual pairing at their own pace.

Thumb 1635530446 images

Personal Attention Roleplay

Helen Chau Bradley

A young gymnast crushes on an older, more talented teammate while contending with her overworked mother. A newly queer twenty-something juggles two intimate relationships--with...

More Info

Personal Attention Rolepay is a searing collection of short stories so real you can taste them. Most pieces skew hyperlocal, cannily depicting the Montréal of today with perfectly recognizable characters pulled right off the streets. But it’s key ingredient is Helen Chau-Bradley’s ability to vividly convey that experience through in writing and not ‘writing for.’ That they do so with a wonderful sense of comedic timing is but a bonus. Favourites include “New Horizons” and “The Queue,” an absurd double-feature that matches a subtle hint of body horror with talking heads emblematic of our times. 

Thumb 1637524832 jeune mari

Ce Qu'un Jeune Mari Devrait Savoir

Arizona O'Neill (Ed.)

A young gymnast crushes on an older, more talented teammate while contending with her overworked mother. A newly queer twenty-something juggles two intimate relationships--with...

More Info

Ce qu’un jeune mari devrait savoir, on the other hand, takes its cue from a Victorian tradition of etiquette handbooks generally targeted at young women. By situating prospective partners as intended readers, the authors assembled do far more than simply orchestrate a bait-and-switch, enriching our understanding of gender dynamics through their work. Pieces by Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch (brought to us in translation by Catherine Lemay), Mélodie Nelson, and Lili Boisvert are absolute standouts. It must also be noted that this delightful volume was edited by my esteemed multi-hyphenate colleague Arizona O’Neill, whose hand-painted window displays have no doubt graced your feeds these last few months. 

Other titles also mentioned in this post include:

Thumb 1615318268 images

Tono Monogatari

Shigeru Mizuki

The beloved mangaka adapts one of his country - and the world's - great works of supernatural literature Shigeru Mizuki - Japan's grand master...

More Info
Thumb 1638200068 images

Library, The


To debut our new Conundrum International Imprint we have chosen the stories of Chihoi, a young Hong Kong artist, who has had books published...

More Info
Thumb 1638200226 l r library vol3 the girl from hoppers 3dcover 540x

Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S.

Jaime Hernandez

Centered on one of Jaime's peaks, "The Death of Speedy," the second comprehensive "Locas" collection (with stories not in the hardcover) alternates between wrestling...

More Info

Francine Yulo